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Passover in Chabad: Personal Transformation and Social Acceptance

Passover in Chabad: Personal Transformation and Social Acceptance

By Dovi Seldowitz

Passover, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Jewish People’s redemption from slavery in ancient Egypt, is heralded as a key Jewish festival for Jews world over. For many Jews, the Pesach Seder will be one of the only traditional Jewish events attended that year. Chabad teachings regarding Passover emphasize the message that the Jewish People’s transition from slavery to freedom is one that can be applied in one’s everyday life. Leaving Egypt (Yeztiat Mitzrayim) is understood as a human struggle to change oneself for the better, to force oneself to step beyond one’s comfort zone and strive to become a better person.[1]

Personal change is understood by sociologists as the exceptional cases in role theory. Sociologically speaking, one acts and identifies in a particular manner which is actually laid out by the society s/he lives in. To change one’s ordinary mode of behavior would require a concerted effort to change to the social setting allowing for a new form of behavior. Sociologists see personal change in terms of the individual striving to manipulate his or her personal affiliations to fortify the identities that had given him/her satisfaction in the past.[2]

What is interesting about Chabad is that transformative change is idealized and even celebrated each year, expressed in the form of the rabbinic tradition that “in each and every generation one must consider as if he or she personally left Egypt.” Chabad’s emphasis on personal transformation is reminiscent of the change sought after in psychoanalysis and other forms of therapy. In Chabad, while personal growth is advocated all year round, the message of change is especially resonant in the Chasidic teachings of Passover.

Chabad philosophy regarding personal development typically sees any change occurring as the result of the Chasid meditating on particular teachings and committing him/herself to acting in a different manner. Perhaps what is not entirely emphasized is how the Chasid plans on dealing with the social repercussions of such personal change. Can the individual’s intention to alter his or her behavior overcome the pressure exerted by his or her peers to continue acting as before?

The annual celebration of Passover in Chabad, replete with teachings of personal change and development, may assist the Chasid seeking to transform personal habits into more refined modes of behavior. A social recognition of a change imperative would allow those seeking to change to do so without the standard pressure of peer disapproval. One might find it easier to resolve to change when one’s peers generally accept that in this season one really ought to do so.

Footnotes:

[1] See for example, Eliyahu Touger, “The Exodus: An Experience of the Present As Well As the Past,” Timeless Patterns in Time, Sichos in English, 1993; Eliyahu Touger, “Sichos Shabbos Parshas Va’eira, Rosh Chodesh Shvat 5722,” Lekutei Sichot, Sichos in English, fn. 55.

[2] See, Peter L. Berger, Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 119-120.

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The Multicultural Chabad: Trends of Ethnic Diversity in a Chasidic Movement

The Multicultural Chabad: Trends of Ethnic Diversity in a Chasidic Movement

By Dovi Seldowitz

Ethnicity amongst Jews may be crudely conceived as a simple divide between East and West. Eastern Jews consist of both Sephardic and various Oriental groups (referred to generally as “Mizrachim”) of the Mediterranean region and parts of Asia. The Jews of the West are the Ashkenazim originating from Russia and most European countries.[1] Chabad, a movement that began in White Russia and whose early followers may be presumed to be all Ashkenazi, has in the last century begun to blur the old lines of Jewish ethnicity in a mix of activist efforts, integrating Jews of various backgrounds under the banner of the movement.

Ethnic diversity in Chabad is fairly unique among the Chasidic movements, other groups may include non-Ashkenazi adherents, but Chabad appears to have the highest proportion of such members. Chabad Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews include those hailing from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Chabad influence is felt in various particular communities such as the Yemenite community in Israel, the Moroccan diaspora in France and Bukharian Jews in New York.

Outreach attempts by Chabad to directly reinforce attachments to Judaism amongst Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews are not recent stories. The very first Chabad emissary sent out by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was to Morocco, in 1950 (the Moroccan effort was actually first initiated by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, shortly before his passing).[2] Chabad activities in Bukharian communities began even earlier with the emissaries of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneersohn, prior to World War One.[3]

For sociologists and other social scientists studying Chabad, a significant but limited amount of scholarly material exists on the state of ethnicity in Chabad; only a single study examines Chabad’s ethnic diversity using quantitative measures.[4] Other sources examine the interactions between Chabad and a particular Sephardi or Mizrachi group.[5] Chabad’s attitude toward Jews of various ethnic backgrounds is quite inclusive; Chabad’s outreach and its Chasidic philosophy has lead to the integration of Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi families in daily life in the Chabad community. These families have been joined together by sharing a common ideology, participating in the same communal events, educating their children in the same schools and allowing them to join in marriage. What has yet to be explored is the existence of a cross-acculturation, how traditional Sephardi and Mizrachi life and culture may have influenced or been incorporated and adopted by Chabad communities.

The Chabad movement has long sought to strengthen the identities of Jews in Sephardi and Mizrachi communities. This multicultural trend in Chabad has been the result of emphasizing the movement’s Chasidic philosophy and ideology over its geographic roots. Chabad communities themselves have become ethnically diverse on account of the movement’s outreach efforts which led to the integration of Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Chasidim. This initiative that began some hundred years ago has translated today into the multicultural heritage of many Chabad Chasidim today.

Footnotes:
[1] This crude geographic measure is obviously limited as many Ashkenazi Jews migrated to Israel (and other Middle Eastern countries) centuries ago, and non-Ashkenazim have lived in various parts of Europe alongside their Ashkenazi brethren. This measure also omits African-Jewish groups.
[2] See, “1950: Leadership,” The Life and Times of the Rebbe, TheRebbe.org (Chabad.org).
[3] See, Naftali Loewenthal, “Lubavitch Hasidim,” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (yivoencyclopedia.org), August 27, 2010.
[4] See, Charles Shahar, Main Report: A Comprehensive Study of the Ultra Orthodox Community of Greater Montreal (2003), Montreal, Canada: Federation CJA (Montreal), (2003): pp. 7–33. Shahar’s study found that one in four Chabad households in Montreal included at least one Sephardi parent.
[5] See, Moshe Shokeid, Children of Circumstances: Israeli Emigrants in New York, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988, pp. 139-160; Laurence D. Loeb, “HaBaD and Habban: 770’s Impact on a Yemenite Jewish Community in Israel,” New World Hasidim: Ethnographic Studies of Hasidic Jews in America, ed. J.S. Belcove-Shalin, SUNY Press, (1995): 69-85.

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Jobs in Chabad: The Nature of Employment in Chabad Institutions and Organizations

Jobs in Chabad: The Nature of Employment in Chabad Institutions and Organizations

By Dovi Seldowitz

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement has long been regarded as a forward thinking Chasidic movement, preaching the fusion of the Jewish traditions of old in the most modern formats. The nature of Chabad’s outreach has led to the creation of numerous individual organizations and institutions, and along with the founding and expansion of these organizations has come the creation of various employment opportunities. Working at a Chabad organization or institution may perhaps appear similar to working at any other religiously affiliated job, the key difference being in the services provided, but certain aspects of the working environment may be said to be particular to the Chabad context.

While each individual working experience at Chabad obviously differs radically from each other. Some workers or volunteers would no doubt find their jobs quite rewarding, others might be frustrated by the inefficiencies in that given organization; some have an enjoyable time working, others do not. The underlying patterns in Chabad jobs have a lot to do with general factors, such as the geographic location of the workplace, the allocated budget, the personalities of the administrators, to give but a few variables. But, we may speculate, what is unique to the Chabad workplace is the common bond and general vision those employed at Chabad share with one another.

Work at Chabad is largely educational in nature, in fact, one writer has thought to define the Chabad movement itself as an “educational organization.”[1] The nature of such education is Jewish by nature, but also Chasidic (in various settings). It stands to reason that those working at Chabad would have to have acquired a significant level of Jewish education prior to working there. Those these levels would vary for different people, the very fact that Chabad is mostly concerned with matters pertaining to Jewish education, Chabad employees may be assumed to have all studied Judaism intensively, almost as a prerequisite for their employment. Furthermore, if the particular Chabad organization or institution deals specifically with Chasidic education (e.g. a community school or camp), one can almost but be assured that the average employee would have that knowledge as well.

This generalized understanding of the nature of the Chabad workplace would provide an obvious point of reference for those wishing to work at Chabad, as well as those in administrative positions. If Jewish and Chasidic education is the prime service being offered, it would stand to reason that scholastic excellence be a essential criteria for such employment, though the job requirements may not always involving formal teaching. The challenge for administrators becomes where the applicant has either strong background in Jewish education but is poorly skilled, or, has poor knowledge of Jewish matters but is quite competent. Where the ideal choice is absent, tough decisions will be made, severely impacting the experiences of those working at a Chabad organization and those they serve.

Working at Chabad usually means, in one way or another, working in an educational setting. Regardless of one’s job at a Chabad organization or institution, knowledge of Judaic and Chasidic subjects will be highly prized. But it is not certain the degree to which that knowledge would be measured against the actual job knowledge required for that role. How much Jewish education versus standardized job skills are required to be an employee of Chabad? While each work position might require a different knowledge balance, we may be certain that Jewish education, to whatever degree, will always be present in the Chabad workplace.

Footnotes:

[1] See Aryeh Solomon, The Educational Teachings of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Jason Aronson, 2000, p. 17.

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Birth in Chabad: Magical Amulets and Other Customs

Birth in Chabad: Magical Amulets and Other Customs

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chabad customs concerning childbirth are part of an eclectic source of material. When taking into account customs relating to pregnancy, childbirth, circumcision and other birth-related rituals, Chabad birth customs include dozens of individual practices. These customs range from commonsensical ideas, to mystical rites, from individual family traditions, to standardized legalistic guidelines. A good deal of Chabad customs surrounding birth overlap the customs of other Orthodox and Chasidic communities, however, the custom particular to Chabad is the use of a Kabbalistic mandala popularly known as a “‘shir hamaalot‘ card” after its inscription of a Psalm beginning with those words. The Chabad is known for promoting this particular birth custom, after it being heavily encouraged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.[1]

This Chabad practice of the “‘shir hamaalot‘ card” is not entirely original; both Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities have a long history of including magical practices, including amulets, at the birth of a Jewish child. While those medieval rites have waned in modern times, Chabad’s public emphasis in using a Kabbalistic birth amulet makes the movement stand out within general Orthodoxy, as Chabad promotes these long-forgotten Jewish customs even in contemporary birth settings where Western medicine is typically placed ahead of all other alternative forms of healing.

Sociologists have noted the contemporary trend towards the medicalization of childbirth. What was once a purely social and/or personal event now specifically takes place within a medical context.[2] Chabad’s stance on placing a Jewish mandala in a hospital birthing room allows Jewish families to reclaim an increasingly medicalized event as their own personal moment, placing Western medicine alongside the traditional belief of divine protection.

Another custom quite particular to Chabad relates to the birth of a baby girl. Chabad customs include exclaiming traditional congratulations for the child, making sure to emphasize female Torah study. The congratulations is that the child will be raised “to (study) Torah, to marry and to (perform) good deeds.”[1] This egalitarian attribution of the value of Torah study for both males and females is not restricted to Chabad, but Chabad has emphasized this idea in a particularly powerful manner, as this custom emphasizes female Torah study from the time of one’s birth.

Chabad’s emphasis on particular childbirth customs reveal some of the movement’s core values. The use of a Kabbalistic amulet points to Chabad’s mission to raise general awareness and pride of Jewish traditions, even in settings not entirely conducive to such practices. And the Chabad’s stance on the involvement of women in Jewish life is also revealed in some of the customs surrounding the birth of baby girls. Overall, Chabad childbirth customs can be seen within the greater context of the movement’s emphasis on keeping Jewish traditions alive today and reinforcing them with the particular ideological approach of Chabad Chasidus.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Avraham Yeshaya Holtzberg, “Kovetz Minhagim: Customs of Pregnancy and Birth,” Shimon Neubort trans, The Jewish Woman, Chabad.org.

[2] See for example, Alyson Henley-Einion, “The medicalisation of childbirth,” The Social Context of Birth, Caroline Squire ed. Radcliffe Publishing, (2003): 173-186; Gay Becker and Robert D. Nachtigall, “Eager for medicalisation: the social production of infertility as a disease.” Sociology of Health & Illness 14, no. 4 (1992): 456-471.

Chabad Behind Bars: A Chasidic Response to the Penal System

Chabad Behind Bars: A Chasidic Response to the Penal System

By Dovi Seldowitz

Of the various outreach efforts Chabad is known for, some are regarded for their high public profile (menorah lightings, Passover sedarim, etc.), while others involve less hype (like translating Chasidic texts); some Chabad activities emphasize individual involvement and commitment (such as encouraging adult men to don tefillin), and some seek for entire community participation (holiday services, Torah study classes, etc.). As much as each of these types of activities vary in terms of audience size and publicity, they stand separate from the unique outreach initiatives sponsored by the Chabad movement, including Chabad’s work with prisoners and inmates. Jews, like every other group includes members who have committed crime, been prosecuted and sentenced to years in jail; Chabad is among the few Jewish organizations involved in caring for the needs of Jews in prisons.

Aleph Institute, a Chabad organization based in Miami, Florida, has devoted itself to assisting Jewish prisoners, helping them cope with life in prison as well as reintegration into a life after imprisonment. Few Jewish movements claim a stake on this area of Jewish need. All too often organized Jewish communities are in the position where it is easy to overlook the Jewish incarcerated. In this instance, Chabad has filled a serious void in the care and responsibility the Jewish community has towards imprisoned Jews.

Through Chabad’s Aleph Institute, Jewish prisoners are finding themselves with the critical support they need to keep them from sliding back to crime following their release. Aleph’sinmate rehabilitation program has been recognized as a success story in terms of reducing rates of recidivism – the tendency for former inmates to continue crime even after their time in prison – and providing support to Jewish prisoners long after their release.[1] But in truth, long before Chabad’s formal offender rehabilitation program, individual Chasidim have gone to local prisons to lead High Holiday services, knowing that without their effort (travelling to prisons while their friends and families celebrated at home) these prisoners would not celebrate the Jewish festivals.[2]

Social scientists have long noted that offender treatment programs cannot expect their attendees to stay out of trouble completely. On average, such programs reach a success rate of 50-60%. Originally, when this research was first published, the tendency was to ‘see the glass as half full’, but with time, and continuing research showing no change in success rates, the perspective turned pessimistic, seeing the same glass as ‘half empty’.[3]

For Chabad, however, no good deed is too small and no outreach program is considered a failure for not attracting enough participants. The movement’s attitude towards all forms of Jewish outreach has long been framed as, primarily, a spiritual endeavor. This positive attitude towards the significance of even the most minimal achievements was the result of the emphasis of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who insisted that each and every good deed, no matter how seemly small, helped the world become a better place.

Chabad’s offender treatment programming has helped inspired those Jews who are truly in need of support and encouragement. Chabad Chasidim stand out for their dedication to imprisoned Jews, helping them remain attached to the Jewish tradition through incarceration. It is the profound dedication to assisting a fellow Jew, coupled with the forcefully positivistic perspective that each good deed is a world of its own, that leads Chabad to achieve success in rehabilitating former prisoners, allowing these men and women to discover joy in life and happiness in living.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Dovid Zaklikowski, “Aleph Institute Lowers Recidivism Rate, Says Chief Justice,” Lubavitch.com, November 16, 2014.
[2] See for example, Lis Harris, Holy Days: The World of The Hasidic Family, Summit Books, New York: 1985, p. 15.
[3] See, James Bonta and D. A. Andrews. “Risk-need-responsivity model for offender assessment and rehabilitation.” Rehabilitation 6 (2007): 1-22.

A Language Called Chabad: The Unique Expressions of the Chabad Movement

A Language Called Chabad: The Unique Expressions of the Chabad Movement

By Dovi Seldowitz

Chasidic communities are typically thought to consist of native Yiddish speakers whose English speaking skills are often somewhat limited. As the sociolinguists might have it, the Yiddish language is a tool for these groups to socialize their members, aligning them with the values of their community.[1] Chabad, by contrast, is known for a balanced bilingualism; speaking and writing in English is a non-issue in Chabad, the movement publishes its own Chasidic teachings in English, both as translations of existing works as well as original writings of English speaking authors. The fact that a Chabad community may speak English as a primary language does not mean they will speak in the same manner as the English speaking majority. It some sense, Chabad is actually a linguistic minority having developed their own peculiar speaking styles, often mixing in Yiddish and Hebrew words in their everyday talk.[2]

Social scientists have pointed out how ethnographic investigations of how language is used in various social groups is critical to providing a lens through which to view broader cultural processes.[3] Of particular interest is the phenomenon known as “code-switching”, using words from more than one language in a single sentence or conversation. Code-switching is frequently used by linguistic minorities to indicate group boundaries.[4] In Chabad, code-switching is used very often when indicating certain activities (outreach, celebratory, learning and identity) that have been shaped by the philosophy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Examples of words that Chabad Chasidim use in the Yiddish or Hebrew original (often with the claim that the word is difficult to render properly in English) are shlichus, hafotzo, mivtzoim (all referring to outreach), farbrengen, chag hageulah, y’mei d’pagra, (referring to Chasidic celebrations) ma’amer, sicha, igros, chitas (referring to Chasidic texts), hashpoa, bitul, and hiskashrus (referring to the Chasid’s identity and relationship to his/her rebbe).

For Chabad Chasidim, the teachings of Chabad philosophy, Jewish outreach activities and the individual relationship between Chasid and rebbe is of central, utmost importance. While other Chasidic communities utilize the Yiddish language as a socializing element, Chabad must rely on a hybrid linguistic form to help establish and maintain the unique Chabad identity. A Chabad Chasid might translate ordinary Hebrew words quite easily, but words that are uniquely Chabad (“Chabadisms”) must remain pure and unadulterated, attesting to the significance these ideas occupy in the minds and hearts of the Chabad community.

Footnotes:

[1] See, Ayala Fader, “Literacy, bilingualism, and gender in a Hasidic community.” Linguistics and Education 12, no. 3 (2001): 261-283.

[2] See for example, Sarah Bunin Benor, “The learned/t: phonological variation in Orthodox Jewish English.” University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 7, no. 3 (2001): 2.

[3] See, Fairclough, Norman, Jane Mulderrig, and Ruth Wodak. “Critical discourse analysis.” Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, Teun A Van Dijk, ed., SAGE (2011): 357-378.

[4] See, Monica Heller, ed. Codeswitching: Anthropological and Sociolinguistic Perspectives, Vol. 48, Walter de Gruyter, 1988; Monica Heller, Linguistic Minorities and Modernity: A Sociolinguistic Ethnography. A&C Black, 2006.

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Chabad and Technology: A Complimentary Mix

Chabad and Technology: A Complimentary Mix

By Dovi Seldowitz

In contrast to other Chasidic groups, Chabad is noted for their remarkable use of technology in documenting Chabad Chasidic life and for the purpose of Jewish outreach. Other Chasidic communities have shunned technological advances, believing they allow a secular world to easily penetrate their community and undermine communal values, to some extent, these Chasidim believe that certain technological innovations are inherently evil, by contrast, Chabad has viewed these innovations as mere tools to be utilized in any number of ways. The advanced capabilities of communication technology (radio, television and the internet) as new opportunities to spread the message of Chasidism.

Chabad appears to have a dual focus in using technology, both concerns have long been in use in the Chabad movement since the arrival of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, to the United States. Chabad has utilized technology for both “insider” (internal) and “outsider” (external) purposes. Internally, for the Chabad community, technology has been used to preserve historical moments for the movement and the public sermons of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Externally, Chabad uses technology for disseminating Chasidic and general Jewish teachings as well as for increasing public awareness of Judaism and Jewish practice.

Examples of Chabad’s internal uses of technology include photographs and video recordings of the Previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, and the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, as well as photographs and recordings documenting contemporary Chabad culture (weddings, community events, etc.). Videos of the Rebbe have acquired something of a central pillar in Chabad culture; “Rebbe videos” are frequently played in schools, synagogues and at public events. Websites, both by the Chabad movement as well as those independently run, allow Chabad culture to be accessible in the internet age. Additionally, mainstream social media sites have allowed Chabad communities to connect online; today, individual Chasidim may keep in touch with one another, wherever they may live. Examples of Chabad’s external uses of technology include publications in newsletter and magazine forms, radio and television broadcasts, satellite transmissions and websites to spread Chabad’s message of Jewish awareness and practice. Social media plays an important role in getting those messages into the public sphere.

A number of Jewish sociologists and social scientists have studied Chabad’s use of technology, noting the unique combination of a traditional Jewish group utilizing the latest technological innovations for preserving Chabad culture and spreading Judaism.[1] Although some have thought that the institutional use of the internet by Chabad organizations is primarily performed in order to disseminate information on Chabad and Judaism rather than create an online community. The internet is, for Chabad, a temporary space designed to bring Jews together and encourage them to seek out in-person encounters with Chabad shluchim.[2] Whether this assessment is entirely accurate or not, it proposes that some underlying tensions still exist in the way Chabad uses technology.

Chabad’s use of technology, both for internal and external use, set it apart from other Chasidic groups that have frequently shunned advanced communication technologies. The Chabad movement’s ability to increase awareness of Jewish practices have been undeniably enhanced by its use of a range of technologies. And while some maintain that certain tensions still exist in Chabad’s relationship to technology, one cannot deny that the impact of radio, video and the internet has changed Chabad both inside and out.

Footnotes:

[1] For sources on Chabad and technology, see, Jeffrey Shandler, “The virtual Rebbe,” Jews, God, and Videotape: Religion and Media in America. NYU Press, 2009; Maya Balakirsky Katz, The Visual Culture of Chabad. Cambridge University Press, 2010; Oren Golan, “12 Charting frontiers of online religious communities.” Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Heidi A. Campbell, ed., Routledge (2012): 155; Sharrona Pearl, “Exceptions to the Rule: Chabad-Lubavitch and the Digital Sphere.” Journal of Media and Religion 13, no. 3 (2014): 123-137.

[2] See, Pearl (2014).